The Swan Of Utrecht

Haunted by injuries: Van Basten

Marco Van Basten was born on the 31st of October 1964 in Utrecht. He grew up in the Oog In Al neighbourhood. When he was just six years old, he began playing for a local team from his hometown, EDO. After spending a year with them, he moved to UVV Utrecht. His time at UVV was stretched over nine years. This is where he developed the skills he needed to make it to the big clubs.

When Marco just turned 16, he got an offer from Ajax and signed a contract with them for the 1981-82 season. Marco debuted for Ajax on the 3rd of April 1982, when he came on as a substitute for Johan Cruyff and scored a goal bumping up the team’s morale contributing to the 5-0 victory over NEC.

The following season seemed to be beneficial for Basten. In the season of 83’, he competed with the European top scorer and first choice Holland international Wim Kieft for the position of centre forward. Marco ended up scoring nine goals in 20 league matches. Consequently, Ajax chose to sell Wim Kieft to Pisa, an Italian Serie A club, the following season. Whereas the 18-year-old Marco solidified his position as his team’s main attacker as he was in the national team of Holland.

Marcos’s agility, ball control and focus made him the best. Even from a young age, he was scoring goals like a pro. Not only this, but his exceptional finish also allowed him to hold the title of a top scorer for four consecutive seasons, from 1983-84 to 1986-87, scoring 118 goals in 112 matches. After scoring hat-tricks over hat-tricks and retaining the top scorer title, he was nominated for and won the European Golden Boot. Basten also scored the winning goal in the UEFA Winners’ Cup final against Lokomotive Leipzig in 1987.  In total, he scored 128 goals in 133 league matches for Ajax, which was more than anyone at that time. If averaged, this meant that he scored a goal in almost every single game he played in.

In 1987, Marco started getting offers from different clubs as his talent did not go unnoticed. He had proved himself to the team and the fans of Ajax and now it was time to move on. A chance to transfer to a bigger, better club. He played his last season of 86-87 with Ajax and then signed a contract with the president of AC Milan, Silvio Berlusconi. He felt more inclined toward AC Milan because it was not as unfamiliar and new as he thought it would be. Silvio, along with Marco, signed Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard as well. These two were fellow countrymen who played with Basten in the national team of Holland. With his first season there, Milan won their first Scudetto in eight years; however, due to an ankle injury, Van Basten could only play in 11 of the matches. Even with the ankle injury, Basten somehow managed to awe the fans in the short amount of time that he was on field and won Ballon d’Or as Europe’s top footballer. Creating his own legacy, Basten could not back down. Year after year, scoring goals on goals in one league or the other he was the top scorer.

However, this is not the reason Marco Van Basten is remembered to this day. It isn’t because of his achievements of playing in clubs; it is what he did and endured in his career as an international player.

For years, Marco van Basten has been a notion of a goal scorer from whom the legs of opposing defenders knelt. The Dutchman was the type of ingenious offensive player who could score a goal with his left, right and head, from all positions.

Before the 1988 UEFA European Championship, 23-year-old Netherland’s striker Marco van Basten was one of the most promising talents in the game.

A hat-trick against England, a semi-final winner versus West Germany and a spectacular volley from an acute angle to see off the Soviet Union in the final, and he was already in football’s hall of fame. Not bad for someone who had just had his debut season at AC Milan interrupted by an ankle injury.

The 1988 Euro brought along one of the greatest moments of history for Dutch football. With just eight teams divided into two groups yearning for the cup, no one had room for error. Netherlands started the tournament with a 0-1 defeat to Soviet Union. This came as a huge blow as they eagerly needed to win this tournament.

For their second game, Michel made a change to the starting eleven and brought Basten out into the field. Basten, no doubt at his peak, was still recovering from multiple injuries to his ankle. His inclusion in the second match against England was no more than a perfect decision for the Dutch. Netherlands beat England 3-1 with Van Basten scoring a hat-trick in an international stadium. A jaw-dropping moment for the fans and the opposing side as well. This victory proved to be a significant boost to the Dutch and gave them belief that they indeed belonged at that level.

With the next game against Ireland, Netherlands comfortably qualified with Wim Kieft’s brilliant header giving them a 1-0 win.

The Soviets continually going up the ladder in the other group, Netherlands was faced with West Germany in theirs. The mouth-watering clash with the hosts consumed the fans worldwide. The Dutch had lost to West Germany in consecutive FIFA World Cup finals and were determined to strike back now.

The match proved to be a pulsating encounter and lived up to the billing. Lothar Matthaus and Co opened the scoring in the 55th minute with the skipper slotting home a penalty. However, Netherlands equalized after Van Basten was brought down in the box with just 16 minutes of normal time remaining. Ronald Koeman converted the penalty and the match headed towards a nail-biting finish.

Netherlands eventually got the winner in the 88th minute with Van Basten picking up a pass from Jan Wouters and slotting it into the bottom corner. The Dutch, who started the tournament with a loss to the Soviets, had set up a rematch with a dream run to the final.

Van Basten was not fit to play in any of these matches. With every subsequent injury and operation, Marco felt his pain increase. 

The unbearable jolts of pain that shivered up his leg making it impossible for him to walk even let alone run on the field.

Marco had missed half the season with AC Milan because of his injuries. Michel was not going to let him play if it wasn’t for Marco’s doctor who comforted them both and reassured them that it was okay for Marco to take part. Strenuous exercise and therapy weren’t enough to bogger the pain down in his ankle. He needed to decide. Whether to keep playing or to quit.

His conscience, however, could not let him stay away from football. The grand finale against the Soviets. It was a fitting finale for Netherlands. They had their chance to earn their biggest triumph at Munich’s Olympiastadion – the same venue where they lost the 1974 FIFA World Cup final to West Germany. The intolerable pain was made a little less agonizing with bandages all along his foot and ankle binding in the foot and shoe closely. The Dutch could not risk putting any foot wrong. And they barely did.

Perhaps what is most widely remembered about that final is the goal rather than the win which made the Dutch champions. Taking the lead in the 33rd minute when caption Ruud Gullit hovered the ball from outside the box to the far end of the goal post. Then came a moment that proved to be one of the lasting memories of the tournament.

The leading goal scorer of the tournament was waiting to make contact with the ball. He could either stop it and pass it inside the box or he could just strike up a volley. With synapses firing inside his brain to decide, he put all his faith in his bandaged-up ankle and let his leg swing hitting the ball from an impossible acute angle to score from. The ball swooped over the keeper and nicely rolled against the net. The then 23-year-old AC Milan striker hit the most audacious, technically sound volley into the top corner. This unforgettable goal sealed the night for Netherlands, and they got their hands on the Euro 1988 trophy.

Van Basten was able to achieve all this in just 23 years and went on to play for AC Milan. Scoring incredible goals including bicycle kicks, putting the ball in the back of the net every single time. In 1992, he was named FIFA World Player of the year. With Marco on the main squad, Milan stretched their unbeaten run into the 1992–93 season, going 58 matches over two seasons before they lost a match. Van Basten was exceptional in the early part of the season. He was again voted the European player of the year, becoming the third player after Johan Cruyff and Michel Platini to win the award three times.

However, his troublesome ankle injury recurred, and he was forced to lay off for another six months and undergo a series of surgeries. He consistently came back to play for more. To quench his thirst for becoming the best in the world. However, not long after this he came onto the field for the last time in the Champions League final. He was tackled from behind experiencing the worst injury to the same ankle and had to come off in the 86th minute. This condemned Van Basten to take part in any of the matches after that. Be it in AC Milan or in the team of Netherlands.

He finally conceded defeat in his battle to recover in 1995, when he announced his retirement as a player after two whole years on side-lines.

Using today’s techniques and surgeries may have had a different outcome on the notorious player, but as unfortunate as it was for the fans and Marco himself, he was born in a different era. An era not so medically advanced.

If Marco Van Basten ever had a chance to fully recover and get back on the field, he surely would’ve made history if that is not what he was achieved already.

“The most frustrating thing is not the way I hurt my ankle, but the way I have been treated by some doctors –the person who damaged my ankle the most was not a player, but a surgeon.”


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